Sign of Throat Cancer Risk Down the Road

Oropharyngeal cancer risks higher in individuals with HPV antibodies

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D. Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) A virus that’s been linked with cervical cancer is now known to be involved in a number of other cancers. The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a major risk factor for oral cancers.

New research has found that a blood test may predict who’s at risk for this increasingly common form of cancer.

Antibodies are soldiers. Their job is to fight off invaders.  

Researchers have discovered that antibodies against HPV may help identify folks at greatest risk of developing throat cancer. The technical name for this disease is oropharyngeal cancer.

These antibodies can be picked up in blood tests years before cancer develops. As such, it could be something doctors screen for to help detect throat cancer.

"See your doctor if you have swallowing problems."

Scientists at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health, in collaboration with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), made the discovery.

Until recently, throat cancer was most common in people who smoked and drank alcohol. Now, HPV type 16 (HPV16) infection is also seen as a culprit in the development of this cancer. 

Nearly 41,500 US adults will be diagnosed with oropharyngeal or oral cancer this year.

"HPV16 has been associated with a rapid increase in the incidence of oropharynx cancer in some parts of the world, notably in the United States, Sweden and Australia, where it is now responsible for more than 50 percent of cases," the study authors wrote.

One HPV gene called HPV E6 is involved in the formation of tumors. 

"Our study shows not only that the E6 antibodies are present prior to diagnosis — but that in many cases, the antibodies are there more than a decade before the cancer was clinically detectable, an important feature of a successful screening biomarker," said Aimee R. Kreimer, PhD, this study's lead investigator from the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, NCI.

For this study, the researchers examined blood samples that participants in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition Study gave at the time they were enrolled between 1992 and 2000. The long-term study involved more than 500,000 healthy adults in 10 European countries.

Dr. Kreimer and colleagues analyzed samples from 135 participants who developed throat cancer within one to 13 years after their blood was drawn and 1,600 individuals who did not develop cancer.

HPV16 E6 antibodies were found in 35 percent of the cancer patients, compared to less than 1 percent of those without cancer. And these antibodies were present in blood samples taken more than 10 years before throat cancer was diagnosed.

Interestingly, those who had the antibody were 70 percent more likely to survive their cancer than those who didn’t have it.

"This article demonstrates that the increased risk of oropharyngeal cancer may be predicted several years in advance," D. Gregory Farwell, MD, FACS, director of Head and Neck Oncology and Microvascular Surgery at the University of California, Davis, told dailyRx News.

"Increasingly, these tumors are presenting in patients that are low-risk for traditional risk factors such as tobacco and alcohol abuse. As such, identifying patients at an early time period for increased surveillance could dramatically change the way we practice head and neck oncology," Dr. Farwell said. 

"While HPV-positive tumors have dominated cervical cancer management, it is only recently that their incidence has surpassed tobacco-induced tumors. However, unlike cervical cancer, oropharyngeal cancer does not have a good screening and surveillance technique, such as the PAP smear," said Dr. Farwell, who was not involved in this study.

This research was published online June 17 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

This research was supported by the NCI Intramural Research Program, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the Health General Directorate of the French Social Affairs and Health Ministry and the European Commission. No conflicts of interest were reported.

Review Date: 
June 21, 2013
Last Updated:
August 9, 2013